Marines have entered combat for years wearing cumbersome, heavy-weight protective gear that tips the scales at 150 pounds, making it difficult for them to be quick on their feet, climb into armed vehicles or stand guard for long periods.
Now, a new generation of more comfortable protective gear is on the way, thanks to the innovative equipment developed by Flora Jordan, an armor and load bearing team engineer with the Marines Corps Systems Command.
Jordan, who goes by the nickname Mackie, worked on re-engineering new body armor that is 45 percent lighter than existing gear, is equally protective and can be adjusted to better fit men and women of all sizes. Because it is lighter weight and configured more ergonomically, it may improve the long-term health of Marines by easing back and shoulder stress.
“This design will impact every Marine in the Marine Corps,” said Col. Mike Manning, program manager at Infantry Weapons Systems. “It will enable Marines to be out in the fight longer and be more comfortable. Mackie’s contribution is a lasting one.”
Coming to the armor and load bearing team in 2012, right out of college, Jordan made a decision early on to use her newly minted engineering skills to fix a problem— the heavy, awkward-fitting gear that she kept hearing about from Marines in the field.
Usually, a reconfiguration of gear is done from the top down. That is, as Nick Pierce, the team leader explained it, “We predominately come up with what we think is good, we bid it out to various companies and they submit something, which is why some of the gear has been inadequate in the past.”
Instead, Jordan went straight to the Marines who were wearing the gear. She spent more than a year interviewing 600 of them in different specialty units. Fitted out in their heavy gear, she went on training marches and collected data on what improvements could be made to their body armor.
“We didn’t have money for new products, but I wanted to understand what wasn’t working,” she said.
After gaining approval for the project, Jordan worked with her team to redevelop a new protective armor. The new system can be tailored to meet specific needs by allowing Marines to use all or some of the armor at any given time. For instance, a Marine riding in an armored vehicle doesn’t need to wear all the components, which can make it difficult to get in and out of the vehicle.
As prototypes were developed, Jordan went back to test new ideas. “We never lost connection with the Marines,” she said. “I was just the translator of what they were telling me.”
“What makes Mackie stand out is her approach to go out and get feedback upfront from Marines,” Pierce said. “That’s very different than what we have done in the past.”
Manning said it also helps that “she is personable and listens, which made it easier for the Marines to talk to her about what they are looking for.”
What she started as a side project with little funding and a short deadline has grown into a program that is attracting other branches of the armed forces, including the Army and Navy, whose personnel Jordan also managed to consult along the way.
To make the best use of the funding available, Jordan built a network of government partners, including the Defense Department’s University of Affiliated Research Centers, for help in research and design work. In the end, the redesign was achieved with a relatively small sum of money compared to what a redesign usually costs.
“She essentially used her network to assemble a team of government organizations that cooperated to help redesign the Marine Corps plate carrier system and the load barrier,” said Lt. Col. Robert Bailey, the former program manager of the Infantry Combat Equipment Office.
The new design, he added, “is absolutely game changing.”
At this point, the new system is in the final testing phase. The intent is to buy the armor next year, assuming funding is available.
Jordan is currently working on a redesign of the pack system to integrate it better with the body armor and to improve the distribution of the weight between the shoulders and hips, an advancement that could help shorter Marines, many of whom are women.
Her work, Jordan said, is fulfilling a dream. “I wanted to serve my country and those who serve us, and in the end that was what pushed me.”
As to her ultimate contribution, Bailey sees a bigger picture than the armor itself. Marines “don’t really know what goes on at the Marine Corps Systems Command, but now they are going to remember Mackie hiking with them in boots and jeans, and reflect on how far their command is willing to go to make improvements happen.”